The mountain scenery of the northern Italian Alps was superlative, but the hiking was strenuous. Then came more walking through ancient alleyways and world-class museums as we explored the great cities of Italy. With all the walking during the trip, I developed pain in my right leg and foot, and after returning to Austin, I was eager to overcome this injury and return to my active life as a massage therapist and personal trainer.
I began to research ways to overcome the pain and inflammation in my tissues, and my search led me to essential oils. A couple of days after I started applying the oils topically, I was able to stop taking the ibuprofen I had been taking for weeks. This is how I discovered the power of aromatherapy.
The French perfume chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé first coined the term “l’aromathérapie” in the 1930s. He intended the word to reflect the medicinal uses of essential oils, not simply the perfumery and mood-enhancing applications. It is true that scent is one of the notable characteristics of the volatile compounds found in essential oils, and that the sense of smell has been associated with emotional and psychological responses. But Gattefossé sought to prove that the therapeutic effects go well beyond pleasant smells and can be attributed to the pharmacological properties of the powerful chemicals found in plants. He conducted pioneering research on the healing properties of essential oils and consulted with doctors who treated wounded WWI soldiers—veterans who definitely needed more intensive care than pleasant smells to lift their spirits.
Now considered a branch of herbal medicine, today’s aromatherapy continues to employ essential oils to promote health and wellness. The extracted oils are concentrated plant chemicals that are volatile and aromatic. The most common method of extraction is distillation or cold-pressing. In addition to the oils, aromatherapy includes hydrosols, a co-product of the distillation process which contain the water soluble components of the plant. The carriers used to dilute essential oils for topical applications are also part of aromatherapy. In fact, carriers such as vegetable and nut oils, or aloe vera gel, may provide therapeutic effects in their own right. Other carriers include waxes, salts, soaps, clays, lotions and salves, though water is not a good carrier for skin applications because essential oils do not mix with water. Synthetic fragrances and chemicals are not used in preparation.
Common aromatherapy methods include inhalation (via an electric diffuser, inhaler or steam); topical applications (essential oils must be diluted before applying to the skin—don’t underestimate how strong they are); bath or footbath; and home cleaning (many essential oils kill germs, so they can be used for their antiseptic action in addition to making your house smell fresh).
Finding a trusted source for essential oils and hydrosols is a challenge for consumers. They must ask questions and develop a relationship with a supplier who can vouch for their sources. A good essential oil supplier must store their products in a cool, dark place. They must provide the chemical analysis (called a GC/MS report) for each batch of oils. The production date and expected shelf life should also be made available. Because of the lack of regulation, essential oils labeled “100% pure” may contain oils, but might be cut with other substances such as vegetable oil or alcohol. The term “therapeutic grade” is also meaningless. Oils and carriers should be organic or wildcrafted (gathered in the wild) because residues of pesticides or herbicides are often found in oils produced from conventionally grown agriculture. Hydrosols have a particularly short shelf life and become contaminated easily, so store them in the refrigerator.
I now count aromatherapy as a powerful health and wellness ally, and my clients agree. It opens the door to holistic natural remedies and body care, and taps into the complexity of nature’s own healing chemistry.
- Use oils with caution during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Follow the guidance of a trained professional.
- Keep essential oils out of the eyes, ears and other body orifices.
- Essential oils can be poisonous if swallowed. Keep out of the reach of children.
- Use hydrosols and carrier oils rather than essential oils for children under 5 and infants.
- Some essential oils, such as mandarin leaf, bergamot, cumin, lime oil (expressed), lemon oil (expressed), angelica root, laurel leaf and grapefruit, are phototoxic and can lead to severe sunburn if the user is exposed to UV rays 12 to 18 hours after application.
- People with allergies and/or chemical sensitivities should use essential oils with caution. In case of irritation, wash with soap and water and apply a carrier oil.
- Do not ingest essential oils unless directed by a specifically trained health professional.
- 1% (5–6 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier) for children, pregnant women, seniors and anyone sensitive or with weak immunity.
- 2% (10–12 drops per ounce of carrier) for general health, daily use and skin care.
- 3% (15–18 drops per ounce of carrier) for acute health issues.
Selected Aromatherapy ResourcesThe Herb Bar (Austin): theherbbar.com
Texas Lavender (Barton Creek Farmers Market): texaslavender.com
Aromatics International: aromatics.com
Essential Elements: essentialelementsstore.com
Stillpoint Aromatics: stillpointaromatics.com
Alliance of International Aromatherapists: alliance-aromatherapists.org
Aromahead Institute: aromahead.com
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: naha.org
“Essential Oil Safety, 2nd edition,” by Robert Tisserand: roberttisserand.com/essential-oil-safety-2nd-edition